“Tulia, Texas” is the story of a small town’s search for justice and the price Americans pay for the war on drugs. The film premeieres tonight (2/10) at 10PM on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series, Independent Lens.
On July 23, 1999, undercover narcotics officer Thomas Coleman executed one of the biggest drug stings in Texas history. By the end of the blazing summer day, Coleman and his drug task force had rounded up and arrested dozens of residents of the small farming town of Tulia. Thirty-nine of the 46 people accused of selling drugs to Coleman were African American.
More than 10 percent of Tulia’s adult black population was locked up and Tulia newspapers applauded the drug sting, christening Coleman the “lone ranger” and reporting on the accused using headlines such as “Tulia Streets Cleared of Garbage.”
When the first defendants stood trial, Tulia juries handed down guilty verdicts with stiff sentences ranging from 20 to 90 years in prison. Many defendants, despite claims of innocence but fearful of a similar fate, accepted plea-bargains for probation or reduced prison time.
Slowly, striking inconsistencies in Coleman’s investigatory work from misidentifications of defendants to contradicting dates on his reports and time sheets began to surface and a 2003 hearing, in the same courthouse where the Tulia defendants had been tried and convicted years before, ensued. Presiding Judge Ron Chapman concluded Coleman “was the most devious, non-responsive law enforcement witness this court witnesses in 25 years on the bench in Texas.” Prosecutors immediately pursued felony perjury charges against Coleman.
In August 2003, Texas Governor Rick Perry pardoned all the convicted Tulia defendants. A civil lawsuit resulted in a multi-county $6 million settlement and was shared among the defendants and their attorneys. Coleman was found guilty of aggravated perjury, receiving ten years probation and a felony charge that bars him from ever working in law enforcement again.